by Adrian Blackmore

Earlier this year an investigation into burning on peatlands allegedly found numerous breaches of Defra’s new Heather and Grass Burning (England) Regulations that had come into effect on 01 May 2021, resulting in widespread media coverage both nationally and abroad. The RSPB used the allegations as proof of ‘industrial scale breaches of the regulations’, and Dr Pat Thompson, the organisation’s senior policy officer for the uplands, wasted no time in claiming that: ‘It is clear from the evidence we have collected that the new peatland burning regulations in England are not working and that burning is still taking place at a massive scale on peatland vegetation and inside protected sites’. The RSPB did not hesitate to use the opportunity to yet again call for a complete ban on burning, and for grouse shooting to be licenced.

That investigation by the RSPB, Greenpeace, and Wild Moors used satellite monitoring, mapping data for protected areas and deep peat, and the RSPB’s new App which it encouraged members of the public to use to report burning on peatland. The resultant reports of alleged breaches of the Burning Regulations were passed to Natural England and Defra as formal complaints, which were then investigated. In response to a recent Parliamentary written question by Sir Robert Goodwill MP, Chair of the Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, it can now be confirmed that there were 1,584 individual reports of alleged breaches of the Heather and Grass Burning (England) Regulations, of which just one was found to be in breach of the regulations. This was where the legal burning of heather on shallow peat had encroached onto heather that was growing in pockets on deep peat. Of the remaining 1,583 reported incidents, 1,022 could not be assessed because they included insufficient information on location, and 490 were established either to be duplicate reports, or not to be in breach of the regulations.

The sensationalist claims that moorland managers were illegally burning heather on numerous areas of deep peat were therefore unsubstantiated, and totally misleading. But then it is just another example of how far the RSPB is prepared to sink with its dogged determination to see the end of all burning on peatland; a management practice that is of considerable importance for wildfire mitigation, conservation, and public safety. Sadly, this is more to do with its dislike for grouse shooting, rather than concerns for the environment, as the RSPB must be only too well aware that if moorland is unmanaged, there is an increased risk of wildfires which can cause significant damage to the underlying peat, and wildlife. The most recent scientific research, which the RSPB chooses to ignore, found that: the controlled ‘cool' burning of heather as carried out by gamekeepers, can have a positive effect on carbon capture; the loss of controlled burning in the USA led to declines in bird life and an increase in damaging wildfires; environmentally important sphagnum moss recovers quickly; and the greenhouse gas emissions from controlled burning are insignificant compared to emissions from wildfires. The possibility of wildfires has grown due to climate change, yet the RSPB is wanting to stop an essential management practice that can help both prevent and reduce their devastating impact. This is nothing short of irresponsible.

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